Distracted Thinking

An interesting article in the New York Times highlighted the research of Moshe Bar, a neuroscientist, who is director of the Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center at Bar-Ilan University and a professor at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. In the study he and his associates found that

…it seems that with a high mental load, you need more time to generate even a conventional thought. These experiments suggest that the mind’s natural tendency is to explore and to favor novelty, but when occupied it looks for the most familiar and inevitably least interesting solution.

In general, there is a tension in our brains between exploration and exploitation. When we are exploratory, we attend to things with a wide scope, curious and desiring to learn. Other times, we rely on, or “exploit,” what we already know, leaning on our expectations, trusting the comfort of a predictable environment. We tend to be more exploratory when traveling to a new country, whereas we are more inclined toward exploitation when returning home after a hard day at work.

…Our study suggests that your internal exploration is too often diminished by an overly occupied mind, much as is the case with your experience of your external environment.

For the vast majority of people, there is an ever-expanding set of things that serve to distract and load our minds. We talk about wanting innovation and innovative thought, but this research provides additional science to back what many people seem to sense anecdotally that the “busy-work” of daily life and of our organizations — text messages, emails, Tweets, meeting decks, meetings, news apps, sports apps etc — is serving to dull the natural innovation abilities we all possess. Want some creativity? Consider how to cut the umbilical cord of the internet for you and your team for a day (not even sure how you could do that but perhaps the sheer difficulty of accomplishing that is itself an innovation opportunity).